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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Land Rover Freelander
Land Rover Freelander SUV

Certainly "value" isn't the initial thought of Land Rover lovers. But remember the word when perusing the next generation Freelander for '04. While, admittedly, surpassing our "cute ute" price guide, we opted for heritage and credentials when putting it on our list.

This is the most significant change since this upmarket's entry level SUV originally rolled out on the roads of Europe a half-dozen years ago. Now, with some 700 changes and more of its big brother Range Rover in look, it's aimed squarely at the heart of the premiere compact SUV market in the states.

Freelander buyers in America have had three years to gauge its list of "go anywhere" attributes, expanded for '04. Think 33-degree hill-climbing capability. Think a "wading" depth of 16 inches (a stall-preventing plus, perhaps, when spring rains obliterate the curb line on streets). An improved soft top on the sporty SE3 version, with grabbable wraparound roof rails, just shouts it will command untamed territory.

The standard, 174-horsepower V-6 engine gets a breathtaking companion list of safety and security features, adding anti-theft engine immobilization, and a heated windshield of all things. For after-crash safety, an inertia switch unlocks doors, turns on hazard lights and stops fuel flow. Whatever "crush cans" attached to the chassis are, they're replaceable. Anything that's replaceable these days has to be good.

What about '04 improvements? Well, finally, the annoyingly positioned CD changer that used to live under the passenger seat has been moved to the dash where it belonged all along. In the spirit of "bigger is better," there are optional 18" alloy sport wheels. For American tastes, even the cup holders seem to have pumped up on steroids. And, for those at the low-end model scale, think suede when touching the new, soft fabric "Alcantara" seat covers.

Missing this year are three separate models, now merged into two. The new entry level model, formerly midrange, retails about $400 more than last year's base. Including destination, it rings in at $26,000. While not exactly bargain priced, you could think of it as luxury DNA on a low-end scale.